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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Swimming Bird's number one rule for writing action scenes

   
Author Topic: Swimming Bird's number one rule for writing action scenes
Swimming Bird
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If at any point you use the word "Suddenly," or any variation thereof, to segue into a moment of action, rewrite it.

Thank you.


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pooka
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The problem with Suddenly is that the Latin translation is actually a really cool word: Subito. For a long time literate people tended to have studied Latin. I'm guessing, is all.
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Kickle
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If you are making rules you might want to explain your reasoning. That would serve to educate rather than to simply dictate.
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wbriggs
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John Barnes talks about "And then." He praises Connie Willis for knowing exactly when to use it, and then points out that he doesn't care -- oops, I did it too. Maybe I did it right.

I think the deal is that "suddenly" can be misused. But surely it can also be used correctly?

[This message has been edited by wbriggs (edited June 19, 2006).]


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oliverhouse
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Like Snoopy. Wasn't his usual thing "Suddenly, a shot rang out"?

Your advice is timely. I haven't written a lot of action scenes, and I'm working on something where I have this exact problem right now. Any specific advice, or just "rewrite it"?

Thanks,
Oliver


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Swimming Bird
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The major problem with suddenly is that many times it's a form of deus ex machina. Your characters are sitting around a diner eating the surf-and-turf breakfast special because they're in the mood for some variety, then SUDDENLY A MANAIC WALKS IN WITH A ROCKET LAUNCHER!!!!

Writers, I've noticed, who use suddenly a lot, also tend to use those pesky exclamation points like they were Advil: popping them left and right as if they were a type of panacea to a dull narrative.

Suddenly, the way a lot of writers use it (the biggest culprit of all being Dan Brown), is a cheat.

Take for example, if Star Wars Episode 3 was novelized. Remember the scene where Anakin has to make a choice between Mace Windu and Palpatine?

Imagine if it were written like this (the melodrama is on purpose): "Anakin's eyes sting as he fights back abashed tears. His choice is clear to him now. Suddenly, his light saber is drawn, the blue steam of light gleaming righteous fury as he makes a downcast strike!"

See the ambiguity there? Writers try to do this for suspense. But this type of suspense is a cheat. You have no idea how he came to his conclusion, simply that it was clear. How was it clear, we do not know. Why it was the right choice, or why he thinks it's the proper choice, is also not clear.

I think that illustrates my biggest problem with suddenly. A lot of times, suddenly takes you from point A to point C while skipping point B. Anakin has a dilemma, A, Akain suddenly makes a choice, C. Where is B?

Another example: your characters are at the beach, and suddenly a shark eats a swimmer. In this case, there isn't a point B, we don't need to know the motivation behind a shark attacking someone in the water. The use of suddenly would be appropriate. But, anytime the word suddenly is appropriate, better, more stylistically pleasing choices are also available.

For example: "Suddenly, the shark's razor labyrinth of teeth latched onto Logan's calf, pulling him below." The focus of the sentence is the shark. The sentence is a flat statement of what happens.

My suggestions? Make the sentence a reaction to what the pov character feels. Don't recite facts, show reaction. "As the shark's jaw gaped open, the cascade of daggers in its mouth almost mesmerizing, Logan could barley anticipate the blast of pain that coursed through his body when the teeth locked together around his calf."

Which paints the better picture?

Suddenly, like exclamation points, should be used sparingly. Maybe once or twice every 10k words. Too many times I've read an MS where every segue was either a "Suddenly," or, "All of a sudden," or "Without warning," or "Out of nowhere." This is weak writing, if you ask me.

No one is saying to have flowery prose (by all means, Hemingway that MS to your hearts' content), but don't substitute good style for writing lean.


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trousercuit
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"Hemingway" is a verb now? Excellent.

Oh, and good points.


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Nietge
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I'm rethinking the Anarkin scene you presented, using your advice...and it's good advice. I feel that I am an overuser of 'right then, X happened' or 'suddenly' or 'without warning' or 'out of the blue'. I'll have to take another hard look at these situations again. This is why I'm on these boards, to get to thinking about such.

How about a sentence structured like: 'It happened so fast, her head spun. One second, she was swimming mindlessly through empty ocean; the next, teeth like twin sets of small daggers from nowhere sunk into her, deeply.' Does this work?

[This message has been edited by Nietge (edited June 20, 2006).]


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trousercuit
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Who swims mindlessly?
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hoptoad
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I have read where a character was described as 'sudden'.
and it was perfect on a gut-level though I never quite got it...

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited June 20, 2006).]


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tchernabyelo
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Swimming Bird, I wish you'd chosen another example.

I haven't read (and won't read) a novelisation of SW3, but my summarisation of that sequence (and its immediate aftermath) after seeing the movie was:

"I'm conflicted... I'm conflicted... I'm conflicted... oh, I've just massacred a bunch of children!"

There was no real dramatic epiphany, no real depiction of why he stopped being conflicted and made THAT choice so suddenly, completely and readily. Good epiphanic moments should both surprise the audience, but appear inevitable with hindsight. This managed to do neither.

I guess that's your point - that this is a typical "Suddenly!" moment - but my teeth literally grate every time I'm reminded of it. Probably the worst single bit of writing in the whole cycle (and it isn't like there isn't some real competition for that slot...).

[This message has been edited by tchernabyelo (edited June 20, 2006).]


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thexmedic
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Once I've finished my current read-through of my novel I'm going to go through and highlight every occasion of the words "suddenly" or "desperately" and mercilessly kill them.
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oliverhouse
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Good overview. I'm still not quite sure what I can do for my current project, but I'm trying to take your advice to heart.

I'm rewriting a short story about a man who was a beta tester for military eyes -- artificial eyes designed to replace natural eyes that were lost in battle. (I previewed the first 13 in F&F, and thanks to the feedback I got there I radically re-wrote the hook, so thanks to those who critiqued.) They can have maps and other images projected onto (into?) them. The MC's problem is that his brother-in-law now controls them, and he's not a nice person. In my second scene, while the MC is driving, the brother-in-law shuts them down (actually projects blackness into them).

He's driving. Suddenly he can't see. He almost has an accident. Suddenly he can see again. Every time his vision completely changes, it's unannounced and at his brother's whim. It's... well, sudden.

In the first draft, I must have said "suddenly" 15 times in 5000 words. Once I realized what I had done, I decided to strip most of them out (that's what first drafts are for); unfortunately, it's harder than it seems. Saying "He couldn't see" doesn't seem to give the reader -- at least when the reader's me -- the sense of shock and immediacy that "Suddenly, he couldn't see" does.

So I see where you're going, and I agree that it can be overused, but finding good substitutions or rewriting strategies doesn't seem to be as easy as I would have hoped.

I know what you're thinking. "Writing's hard, Oliver. Rewriting's harder. Deal with it." So I'm done whining now. Time to get back to work.

Regards,
Oliver


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Neoindra
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Oliverhouse- would it be possible to switch POV to the brother-in-law for that particular scene. That way the focus would be on the “B” of the situation, the how and why of the blackout. Or maybe draw out the scene so nothing is suddenly and the MC is dreading every moment waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop?

[This message has been edited by Neoindra (edited June 20, 2006).]


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oliverhouse
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Thanks for responding, Neoindra.

Maybe I could do something like that, but I think I'll have to use a different method to reshape what I've written. The scene in which things "suddenly" happen serves several purposes: plot advancement, MC character development, showing MC's relationship with his daughter. Shifting to a different character would eliminate several of those. It would also significantly diminish the impact of the near-accident to see it from the eyes of someone who's not in the car. The shock is part of the point, so I don't want to minimize it.

There's plenty of the MC dreading stuff as the story progresses.

I'll chew on it some more, and if I come up with any revelations, I'll post it here.

Thanks,
Oliver


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HSO
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Suddenly HSO attacks this topic!

Arrrggghh! Have at you!

Um...

Right. Sorry about that.

Anything overused should be avoided and edited. But there ain't nothing wrong with using "suddenly." For example: Once again Rusty saw the woman of his dreams--this time the heavenly creature was rummaging through Taco Bell's trash bin; he tried to approach and ask her out, but was suddenly overcome with an inability to move or speak.

Well, that's not an "action" sequence, really, but you know...

Anyway, if overusing "suddenly" becomes apparent in your manuscript, you can write an alternative phrase, which is more wordy but still viable: "All at once." Mix 'em up a bit. "Suddenly" doesn't bother me so much.


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pantros
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There is not a rule in writing that a good writer cannot break with proper skill and planning or, in absence of either, good marketing.
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J
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Suddenly is a great word, but I agree that it is abused. I was trying to nail down why I think it's abused, and this is my conclusion: "Suddenly" is a POV-dependent word that is often abused by being used without regard to POV. Something can't be sudden objectively: it has to be sudden from some person's perspective.

For example, when a mugger leaps from teh shadows to attack an unsuspecting victim, the attack is sudden to the victim, but not to the mugger. If the mugger is your POV character, "suddenly" is an inappropriate word choice.


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MaryRobinette
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Funny. "Suddenly" often bothers me in writing because I feel like it often telegraphs the moment thus weaking it. Not always, but often.

For instance:

quote:
Mary walked through the crisp autumn air. Around her the sun shone through the leaves, making the forest look like stained glass.

A gunshot shattered the air.

Heart pounding, Mary...


Now, saying "Suddenly, a gunshot shattered the air," works, but it often seems to me that it's like the movie where you know something bad is about to happen because the music shifts. If you're deeply in the POV of the character, they would just notice the thing.

Having said that, I should admit that I brought this up when critting someone's story at BootCamp last year and OSC said I was wrong. I still think that it is often overused, but concede that it is appropriate sometimes.


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oliverhouse
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quote:
Funny. "Suddenly" often bothers me in writing because I feel like it often telegraphs the moment thus weaking it. Not always, but often.

I agree that that happens, but mostly when "suddenly" gets overused.

I also agree that "Suddenly, a gunshot shattered the air" might not be as effective as "A gunshot shattered the air."

So after chewing on this for the better part of a day, here's some of what I've come up with.

One "suddenly" was in the middle of a paragraph. I replaced it with "And" and put the new sentence in its own paragraph. (You had already done something like this in your example, which is why the "Suddenly" seemed redundant.)

quote:
They were almost at Ivana's school. The light in front of him turned yellow. He gunned the engine, doing fifty-five in a thirty-five zone, watching for cops and pedestrians.

And the world went black.

He turned rigid with panic, then slammed on the brakes. . . .


Besides the fact that some people here hate the starting-a-sentence-with-a-conjunction thing, I think it's a better solution than what I had. If I weren't in editing mode, I wouldn't even blink at the "And".

quote:
If you're deeply in the POV of the character, they would just notice the thing.

I think there's an element of surprise that I was trying to communicate with "suddenly". To fix that, I've given physical cues of the POV character instead, along the lines of "A gun went off, making Jane jump and spill her coffee."

Here are the last "suddenly"s I have, and although I think I might take out one more, I think these are all reasonable.

quote:
[Tom is still blind.] He felt every part of his body shake. His hands clamped the wheel, aching. He heard Ivana crying next to him, and he reached over tentatively to calm her.

Suddenly he could see her. He looked outside her window and saw how close they had come to the cars parked on the right side of the road. . . .




quote:
Tom stood, fists clenched, ready to shout or overturn the desk; but he was speechless, suddenly unsure of what he had hoped to accomplish by coming.

quote:
He turned on CNN and sat on the couch while he waited for her to return. Suddenly the screen in his eyes also showed CNN. He flipped the channel to CNBC, . . .

To Swimming Bird's point, none of these are transitions to action scenes.

Regards,
Oliver

Edited because I'm a moron with QUOTE tags.

[This message has been edited by oliverhouse (edited June 20, 2006).]


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Survivor
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I don't think that SB's rule deserves to be number one on anyone's list, but I don't have the authority to overrule him as far as his own list goes.

It is a good rule, though. I'm sure there are exceptions, but consider the simple fact that, by giving the reader a three syllable word and a comma before the action you so introduce, you make it feel a lot less sudden to the reader.

Rather than telling us something happened "Suddenly," why not just show it happening in a sudden manner?


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pooka
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Did we already bring up that Lionel Ritchie song "suddenly"? Now I have a reconstructed memory of my 8th grade Latin teacher trying to sing it. She did used to try to sing "All Night Long" which was very entertaining because she looked more than a little like Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
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thexmedic
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Way back up this thread Swimming Bird mentioned that author's use suddenly as a cheat to avoid explaining something and to create a false sense of suspense.

I was just reading through my penultimate chapter and noticed I did that. BUT I did explain why 5 sentences later. Is that OK or am I committing a crime of writing?


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rjzeller
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quote:
Now, saying "Suddenly, a gunshot shattered the air," works, but it often seems to me that it's like the movie where you know something bad is about to happen because the music shifts. If you're deeply in the POV of the character, they would just notice the thing.

I concur, as well as with Survivor's statement. The word actually seems to make the action LESS jarring, or...er...sudden.

I like the movie analogy -- too often they use a change in music to warn you of a big "suprise" about to happen. It's better when you do NOT telegraph it, though.

I remember watching a movie called (I think) "The Forgotten". Now, nevermind how empty the ending was and how utterly dissapointed I was with their failure to deliver on a very promising theme, there were some very well-done moments by the director.

In one scene, the primary character is riding in a car talking to the driver. No sudden minor chords or other musical shift to clue us into what was about to happen. But in mid sentence a truck strikes the passenger side of their car knocking them off the road. The result WAS sudden, and you felt it almost as real as the character (especially when hearing it through your 120 Watt 7.1 surround system). Rather than try to build up the drama, they kept it as real as they could, and the "sudden" effect was, well, effective.

The ability to do the same in our writing, I think, often requires that we do NOT use words like "suddenly" to clue the reader in to the event. I would have to agree, in essence, with SB's post.


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Tephirax
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The only point in which I can see it being useful in action is if you were trying to provide distance between the reader and the action, but I admit even then it would come across as fairly clumsy.

Teph

[This message has been edited by Tephirax (edited July 07, 2006).]


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trousercuit
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I just deleted the word "immediately" from some prose for the same reason.

I wonder if we could make a list? There are plenty of words that connote right at this second which take some time to read and would be usually better left out.

It wasn't even action. It was "The monkey immediately burst into flames" at the end of a paragraph. "The monkey burst into flames" in its own paragraph was much more effective.


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thexmedic
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It's pretty much the same deal as with any adverb: use with caution.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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What thexmedic just said.

Emphatically


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goatboy
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Replace "suddenly" with "all of a sudden". It increases your word count so you get paid more.
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InsideOutside
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Suddenly, the terribly written dialogue and storyline assaulted my delicate sensibilites. I tore off my shirt and screamed to the heavens, "Damn you! Damn you to hell George Lucas!"


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Robert Nowall
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As I've said elsewhere, but seems worth repeating here, I've gone through my (few) recent stories and tried to purge the adverbs altogether. (Having a search program look for "ly" helps a lot in tracking them down.) Partial exceptions: (1) I figure in dialog, anything goes, so I mostly leave them be when a character is speaking them, and (2) I really haven't come up with a good substitute for "only" in most circumstances.

I don't know whether it improves my writing in the eyes of others (everything I've written that way has been rejected so far), but I know I like the end results better...


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